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It’s no secret that India’s roads are a potent killer. Former Tata group chairperson Cyrus Mistry’s high-profile death on Sunday afternoon, which drew condolences from India Inc and political bigwigs including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has again spotlighted just how bad things can get. Early last year, when transport minister Nitin Gadkari claimed that road accidents are “more serious than the covid-19 pandemic", he wasn’t entirely off the mark.

A record 155,622 lives were lost in 2021 to road crashes and 371,884 were injured, shows data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) released last week. This was despite the country being locked in during most of the summer because of the second wave of the pandemic. This is only based on reported incidents. The actual numbers could be higher.

A record 155,622 lives were lost in 2021 to road crashes
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A record 155,622 lives were lost in 2021 to road crashes

The disproportionate impact can be gauged by the fact that with only 1% of the world’s vehicles, India accounts for 11% of all crash-related deaths, the highest in the world, according to a 2021 World Bank report.

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Mistry is an addition to a long list of prominent personalities who have lost their lives to road accidents, from former President Giani Zail Singh’s death in 1994 to Bharatiya Janata Party politician Gopinath Munde who died in Delhi days after being sworn in as a Union minister in 2014. Popular satirist Jaspal Bhatti (2012) and more recently, Deep Sidhu, met with a similar fate a decade apart. The reasons and the culprits in each case vary, but the reality is that despite our sprawling road network, non-adherence to road safety rules and thrill for speed often turn India’s roads into killing fields.

Unsafe roads

Around 42% of all road accident-related deaths in 2020 were due to lack of safety gear, shows latest available transport ministry data. The Central Motor Vehicle Rules make seatbelts and helmets mandatory even for passengers sitting in the rear seat. Mistry was reportedly sitting in the rear seat of the ill-fated Mercedes Benz and was not wearing a seatbelt.

Most such deaths are on two-wheelers in the absence of helmets, far more often among the drivers than pillion riders. In four-wheelers, drivers and passengers were both equally likely to be killed without a seatbelt. Ever since they became mandatory, seatbelts have saved numerous lives and, according to a World Bank report, can reduce the risk of a fatality by as much as 25-75% for rear-seat passengers. As highways allow higher speeds, they are also far deadlier. National highways accounted for one-third (34%) of all road accident-related deaths last year, followed by state highways (25%), shows NCRB data.

The anatomy of road accidents  
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The anatomy of road accidents  

Counting the dead

In 2021, Tamil Nadu reported the highest number of road accidents, while Uttar Pradesh witnessed the most road accident-related deaths. However, it was Bihar that emerged as the worst-affected state when fatality figures were adjusted for population. The eastern state also reported 80 fatalities per 100 road accidents, the worst rate among major states. The states of Goa and Kerala stood out with just seven and 10 deaths per 100 accidents, respectively, implying that accidents may not always be deadly. Mizoram, Nagaland, and Meghalaya reported very high death-to-accidents ratio, indicating that most of the road accidents in these states turn fatal.

North India reported the highest number of road accident-related fatalities, followed by the south. Road accidents left more than 300,000 injured in 2021. Kerala, which has a low ratio between deaths and accidents, was the fourth most-affected state, with 36,514 cases of injuries in 2021.

Speed kills

Overspeeding is the biggest cause of deaths on Indian roads. The urge for speed resulted in more than 87,000 deaths, or nearly 56% of the total road accident-related deaths in India. The next biggest cause was “dangerous driving and overtaking", which saw more than 27% of road accident-related deaths. Bad weather conditions such as dense fog, slippery roads during rain, were the third-biggest cause, NCRB data showed.

Accidents have also been reported because of poor condition of roads, non-adherence of traffic rules, and drivers getting distracted. According to the NCRB data, nearly half of all road accidents in the country involved a two-wheeler, followed by cars (15%). The lack of pedestrian-friendly roads caused the third-highest number of casualties (12%) in 2021.

Mistry’s death is a grim reminder that we have miles to go before India’s roads become safe for everyone.

Elsewhere in Mint

In Opinion, Ajit Ranade profiles Cyrus Mistry, a leader who shunned limelight. Amish Mehta argues decarbonizing conventional smokestacks will be no cakewalk. Vidya Mahambare & Praveen Kumar write about a crucial piece of information hidden in the price data. Long Story details how IndiGo will defend its No. 1 position.

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